Our long pork-belly winter has faded into the back-ground. Following the dictates of our foodie patriarchs, we’ve obediently sucked down hundredweights of lard, butter, and tallow, and generally treated our weary corpses as oleaginous dumping grounds. We’ve gobbled trans fats and saturated fats and other meat-borne substances so pernicious that the shrill-voiced harpies of nutrition can’t find words hysterical enough to describe them.
But now—as summer rolls around, the air turns sweet, and buds blossom into flowers—it’s time to change our gastronomic tune. Take my hand as I lead you to the promised land of lighter summer fare, where winter’s heavy dishes are shucked off like so many exfoliated skin cells, reducing our red meat intake to near zilch as we turn mainly to chicken, fish, and outright vegetarianism for sustenance.
Summer is a time for salads. We’re not talking about featherweight collections of baby lettuce eaten between bites of steak, but satisfying meal-size salads, and the Cobb is a case in point. It was invented by owner Robert H. Cobb at L.A.’s Brown Derby in 1937 and traditionally dribbles corn, avocados, hard-boiled eggs, scallions, tomatoes, watercress, cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, and chicken with a creamy Roquefort dressing. Showily, the ingredients are diced into same-size cubic morsels.
You can grab a luxe version made with lobster at BLT Steak (106 East 57th Street), or a more plebian evocation, featuring rubbery white Oaxacan cheese, at Acapulco (1116 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn). Some of the more ambitious Greek diners around town dabble in Cobb, including University Restaurant (101 University Place), a mainstay of NYU students and their visiting parents. If you’d like ramen with your Cobb, check out the special summer noodles, called hiyashi chuka, at long-running ramen parlor Sapporo (152 West 49th Street), where the noodle prices are blessedly a few dollars less than those at Ippudo and Setagaya. In addition to the usual catalog of diced entities, there’s a little fish cake thrown into this refreshing chilled assemblage. Rai Rai Ken (214 East 10th Street) makes an excellent version, too, adding sun-dried tomatoes to the mix—but the dish is available only from May through September.
Of course, the standard Greek salad is another verdant tour de force, composed of feta cheese, raw purple onions, romaine lettuce, black olives, and rice-stuffed grape leaves in a lemon dressing. One of my favorites is found at It’s Greek to Me (194 Newark Avenue, Jersey City), where you can also get a good-but-gory-looking sliced-beet salad, brilliantly sided with the puréed potato dip skordalia, garlicky enough to make your lips burn. If you want a Greek salad with a view, check out Yiasou (2003 Emmons Avenue, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn), which sits across the street from the boat-filled bay and flings open its front to sea breezes in fine weather. Cypriot restaurant Aliada (29-19 Broadway, Astoria, Queens) offers the city’s best collection of salads in a Greek vein, including the eponymous Aliada—a mosaic of grilled octopus, roasted red peppers, potatoes, and romaine lettuce swimming in green olive oil. Damn, it’s tasty!
Truth be told, it’s easy to tire of lettuce-driven salads. Seeking substitutes, I’ve been avidly trying to redefine the salad by importing salad-like dishes from the menus of ethnic eateries around town. At Nepalese restaurant Mustang Thakali Kitchen (74-14 37th Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens), there’s a toss of miniature toasted soybeans with tomatoes, cilantro, and scallions called bhatmas chiura. As if this salty feast weren’t delightful enough, it comes with a haystack of “beaten rice”—parboiled grains pounded into flaky snack food. At Himalayan Café (78 East 1st Street), another Nepalese place, you can enjoy khatsa, a spicy potato jumble that incorporates cauliflower and spongy bean curd. This vegetarian delight springs to life when you squeeze on the lemon juice. And while the consumption of anything calling itself a Jell-O salad cannot be condoned, I have no trouble recommending la-phing, a wobbly, pellucid puck of mung-bean jelly laked in a vinegar-laced sauce. A splendid version exists at Top Café Tibet (1510 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn).
Indian chaats—crunchy assortments of fritters, lentils, and snack chips squirted with chutneys and yogurt—make wonderful light meals. Find a small selection at Chennai Garden (129 East 27th Street), including behl vada and channa chaat. A much larger variety lies waiting to be explored at Pavitra (135-08 Liberty Avenue, Richmond Hill, Queens), which specializes in chaats, and sits close enough to Kennedy Airport that you can pick up one or two as an airline lunch. At the redundantly named Curry & Curry (153 East 33rd Street), several chaats are available, including the beloved Mumbai beach snack bhel puri, which features puffed rice, potatoes, and coriander.
Some of our favorite fringe salad-like concoctions are found in Thai restaurants, which have gradually been replacing Cantonese takeouts in many neighborhoods. These can be tongue-searingly spicy, which is great, since many cultures believe that chilies provide relief from summer’s heat (if only by stimulating the sweat glands and cooling you by evaporation). There’s a splendid larb made with ground chicken (instead of the usual pork), scallions, purple onions, and orange bell peppers, cradled in baby spinach leaves, at I Am Thai (49-08 43rd Avenue, Sunnyside, Queens), a brightly lit place, with orange Formica booths, trying very hard to look like a franchise restaurant.
Of course, the classic Siamese salad hails from the northeastern region of Isaan, and focuses on shredded green papaya, which imparts a pleasantly sour and crunchy mien to the recipe. Find it at Mai Thai (4618 Eighth Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn)—will these horrible puns never cease?—made extra crunchy with crushed peanuts and miniature dried shrimp. There’s a small wooden deck on the south side of the restaurant, which provides a fine view of the setting sun. If you go for super-spicy, check out the rendition at Ayada (77-08 Woodside Avenue, Elmhurst, Queens). The Cambodians have gotten in on the act, too, and at Kampuchea Noodle Bar (78 Rivington Street), you’ll find a papaya salad pelted with duck and glistening with a chile-lime dressing.
We’ve saved one of the best for last: the Niçoise salad, name-checking the Riviera city of Nice. Always served in a big bowl with a pungent vinaigrette, the salad assembles canned tuna (no mayo!), tomatoes, potatoes, boiled eggs, red peppers, anchovies, and olives—a compendium of Provençal ingredients. If you get it at A.O.C. (314 Bleecker Street), you can consume it in the trellised backyard patio, where the tourist hubbub of the West Village seems kilometers away. For a more portable version, check out Payard Pâtisserie (1032 Lexington Avenue), which usually offers the same salad on a torpedo-shaped roll—perfect for that picnic or concert in Central Park. And, having had a lighter meal, you’re less likely to fall asleep during the violin concerto.